Working to Serve Veterans

08/22/2017 .
Clayton Heilman  .  Storyteller

Dennis handed the triangle-folded American flag over to Jeff, a young Marine that had helped his small group begin their serving project. “This flag was from the U.S. base in the Helmand province in Afghanistan,” Dennis said. “The general sent it to us along with a thank you card signed by all the soldiers at the base for serving the troops the past few years. Giving this flag to Jeff was the least we could do to thank and honor him for all his help. We wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without him.”

Two years earlier, Dennis and Suzanne had met with Jeff, who also attended Saddleback San Clemente. Dennis and Suzanne’s small group were looking for a way to serve the soldiers stationed overseas. Jeff offered to help them get connected. After Jeff’s guidance, Dennis and his small group went to work. Over the next two years, they sent over 200 care packages to bases Jeff recommended. The small group had put in a lot of effort and  they wanted to recognize Jeff for being the catalyst to help them get started.

After giving Jeff the flag, Dennis asked if there was anything else he knew they could do to serve the troops. Jeff told them about a therapy program that he was involved with on the weekends. Jeff had been wounded in the service and joined the group to help with his own rehabilitation. He shared that many of the veterans, suffering severe trauma and PTSD, had lost crucial social skills and the ability to assimilate back into society. Many of the soldiers in Jeff’s group lacked a support system to encourage them as they recovered from the nightmare of war. It wrecked Jeff to watch soldiers return from war and then attempt to take their own life. He was even more broken-hearted when they succeeded. Jeff had seen the dedication and heart this small group had put into their initial project together, he thought this dedicated small group could do something to care and show support for these wounded soldiers.

“Jeff suggested our small group simply show up during the training and serve them lunch,” Dennis said. “It didn’t seem like much, but they needed someone to care for them — many of the soldiers had no one outside of the group.”

Dennis discussed this with his small group to plan out the logistics and commitment. They decided to dedicate every Saturday to drive down and feed the veterans.

“We brought a portable barbecue and got lunch ready. The soldiers were so isolated, they wouldn’t talk to us — they barely spoke with one another; the atmosphere felt strange,” Dennis recalled. “Even during breaks they would wander off by themselves. They wanted nothing to do with each other, or us.”

When lunch was ready they wouldn’t even come to the table to pick up a plate of food. “Each member of our small group prepared a plate and took it to them,” Dennis said. “When they were offered the food they were thankful and accepted the lunch, but they wouldn’t eat together. Some of the soldiers took the plate of food and just went home.”

Building relationships with these veterans felt slow. The small group wondered if they were making any progress. After several weeks of showing up consistently, the small group began to notice a shift. There were more conversations happening; they got to know some of the soldiers. They were occasionally allowed to hold the leash for their service dog while they went through the line to get their food. “It was a struggle for our entire small group to keep our commitment every Saturday — it was a lot of work,” Dennis said. “But our hearts were in it. We didn’t want to give up.”

After serving lunch the group would pack up the leftovers for the veterans to take home. “It made a big difference for some of these men and women,” Dennis said. “They always express thanks for taking the time to pack up the leftovers for them.”

These breakthrough moments encouraged Dennis and the small group. They began trying to work with other small groups and ministries for other ways to serve these veterans and get more people involved. Suzanne went around and spoke to the Saddleback Women groups at San Clemente and Rancho Capistrano, and Alan, another member of their group, began coordinating other small groups that wanted to help serve lunch.

Other groups and businesses from the community offered other services to help the soldiers. A local veterinarian gives the service dogs free shots and checkups. One dog food manufacturer gave Dennis a stack of coupons to help the soldiers afford supplies for their dogs. Local restaurants would discount meals for the veterans. People from across the community have come together to serve these soldiers that are suffering as a result of their service to their country.

“Every week we serve them lunch, we set up a table with information on free local services for the veterans and flyers for other events at Saddleback Church,” Dennis said. Many of the soldiers were encouraged to see a local church that was willing to care for them — offering programs like the PEACE Center, Celebrate Recovery®, and other veteran support groups to give them a hand up on their road to recovery.

Learn more about veterans ministry at Saddleback HERE.

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